My Mom’s generation used to call menopause “the change.” Painful emotional and physical changes that most women experience in order to move to the last chapter of their life. Of course, change doesn’t just happen once a lifetime. People and things must constantly evolve in order to produce and grow.
I once reconnected with a co-worker online over a social media post. The comments turned opinionated as they always seem to do. She private messaged me with the scathing message, ” Samantha, you’ve CHANGED!”
Well, yes. I’m supposed to. When she knew me I was in a completely different phase of my life. I call it my drone phase. I was on autopilot. I didn’t even know who I was outside of being a mom and wife, a role I started when I was barely a child myself.
If we refuse to change, we remain stagnant.
Nature shows us every season how important change is. Each season’s loss is in preparation for the next step of life.
The Bradford pear trees we have are in my area have beautiful white blossoms that last a measly few days. But before you get a brief glimpse of the fluffy white flowers you have to endure the piles of messy seeds. Then the blossoms fall off to make way for the lush green leaves, leaving more messy seed twigs. In the fall the leaves are relentless leaving black stains on my patio. The fall leaves are beautifully patterned to reflect the various fall touches of frost intermingled with the warm days the leaves endure before succumbing to winter.
Just as we can’t make the leaves stay on the tree, we can’t hold on to a season of our lives that’s ending. Everything has an expiration date. Some relationships not only morph into a completely different version of what they once were, but they can end without closure. Even with “closure”- a word which I’m not fond of- we still have thoughts and feelings of loss as we navigate through habits of calling or being with them.
The key to moving through these experiences is to process each emotion as it arises. My favorite (& only) spiritual guru states:
“The day you can look pain directly in the face and say “thank you for changing me for the better” is the moment you stop fearing anything or anyone. Your healing journey doesn’t take effort. It takes bravery.”
The important thing to remember when we get hit with a wave of emotion which causes the fight or flight phenomenon as I described in a previous post here., is to not stay in that place. Feel it, accept it, love the one who is experiencing it- no shame – no blame. Then let it go…
Anytime you feel uncomfortable feelings, use the 5,4,3,2,1 method. And breathe. look up at the blue sky find some beautiful clouds ora plant in your house or office. Find a bird flying, listen for any sound of nature. Smell the air. SEND LOVE & comfort to yourself. Everything you WANT to feel from the loss- give to yourself. The 5 things coping skills
The Persian Poet Rumi from the thirteenth century wrote this poem:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.-Rumi
In the struggle with substance abuse, sometimes the goal of just getting free from the frightening dependence on drugs or alcohol can hijack all our attention. So, as a therapist, I want to thank you for your June 10, 2016 article on “The Link Between Trauma and Addiction,” and allowing me to write a follow up article from a trauma-informed care perspective.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to consider and treat trauma when we talk about addiction treatment and recovery. There is always a reason someone is using. When a pattern of addiction behavior has taken hold, it is not because it’s fun or feels good. People use because they are trying to maintain a sense of feeling “normal,” to feel less badly, or to feel less of anything at all.
What kind of trauma are we talking about? You said it perfectly, “trauma can be different for everyone.” Indeed, trauma is in the eye of the perceiver.
What is Trauma?
Trauma happens when something overwhelms and threatens a person’s sense of safety or ability to cope. One person’s forgettable incident may be another person’s haunting memory. For some, it could be their parents’ divorce. It could be getting lost in the grocery store. It could be having a childhood illness, or being in the hospital. It may be witnessing violence, or the suffering of a family member. It may happen with an abusive, absent or addicted parent, or silent emotional distance from a primary caregiver.
Trauma can actually be any event! What matters is that the person perceived trauma in their life. We need to recognize its impact on a person’s mental health and its certain role in addiction.
Often people who develop addiction don’t see themselves as trauma survivors. I want to encourage more people — therapists and families and people struggling with addiction — to see addiction recovery through a trauma-informed lens.
What It Means to Be Trauma-Informed
Becoming trauma-informed means learning about the impact of overwhelming, toxic stress on every part of the trauma survivor’s life. As a therapist, providing trauma-informed care means being aware that for people that are using addiction behavior, a history of trauma is nearly always part of their experience. We need to become skilled and adept at guiding the recovery process to include treatment for trauma. This way long-term recovery is more likely to be sustainable.
Therapists study many principles and treatment methods in trauma-informed care. But here I’d like to focus on three ways a trauma-informed approach helps with addiction recovery:
It takes a non-pathologizing view — respecting the person in recovery as a worthy human being; they are not bad people, just people in pain!
It builds awareness of stages of recovery — a “road map” for healing, not just the using behavior, but the pain that they were trying to address by using.
It enables the client, trauma survivors, to replace self-harming/addictive behavior with self-care, even with the same emotional triggers.
The Non-Pathologizing View in Trauma-Informed Care
Many who struggle with addiction have self-tormenting thoughts about how weak, flawed or somehow defective they are for having this problem. Being non-pathologizing means seeing the person recovering as a human being in pain facing great challenges, not a defective person.
Trauma-informed therapy creates a space to recognize and claim the innate worth of the person in recovery. It does not mean turning a blind eye to substance abuse. Rather, we see people who tried to numb themselves to feel less badly, not because they are bad.
The non-pathologizing approach of trauma-informed care helps build the trust and safety needed for healing. But it’s also important because it offers survivors a valid self-caring way to see themselves. They can see that they turned to self-harming addictions because there was nowhere else to turn to feel less, or to feel less badly. But now we can find a healthier path. There is hope!
Understanding Stages of Recovery
Therapist and author Judith Herman describes three stages of recovery from trauma, including addiction:
Stage 1: Safety and Stabilization
Stage 2: Remembering and Mourning
Stage 3: Reconnecting and Integration
Stage 1: Safety and Stabilization, the Longest Stage
Stage 1 is all about getting a sense of being clean and sober, and learning coping skills to deal with emotions, painful thoughts and feelings, and urges to use. When emotions are no longer numb, many in recovery feel overwhelming anxiety or depression, and they don’t know what to do.
I believe Stage 1 is the most important stage, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.
The first goal is to develop coping skills so a person in recovery knows what to do to recognize and deal with emotions in healthier ways.
It’s also about learning skills to manage painful mental states such as flashbacks or self-criticism. Helpful skills include mindfulness, self-care and finding trusted resources and supportive people and groups that might include 12-step programs. Therapists may want to incorporate Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) and many other modalities to help those in recovery develop strengths and stable relationships, and minimize unhelpful responses. (Some therapists, myself included, use training in multiple modalities such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Ego State Psychotherapy, and EMDR, which are helpful in both Stage 1 and Stage 2 of treatment and recovery.)
It is so important for family members and people in recovery to understand this process. It’s important to realize that completing a 28-day program doesn’t mean you’re done – you’ve only just begun. It takes time to build new coping skills. It takes time to develop connections with supportive people and 12-step or other support groups. That’s why Stage 1 is the longest stage of trauma and addiction recovery.
About Stage 2: Remembering and Mourning
In Stage 2, stabilization to gain freedom from substance use allows people to stay present and grounded while they make sense of what happened in their lives. Trauma-informed therapy helps survivors to process unresolved trauma. Mourning the loss of the happy childhood or peace of mind that you could not enjoy is part of this process.
As a trauma survivor, you learn that this is part of your experience, but it’s not who you are. You do not have to recall every detail to heal, but you can remember it if you wish, and retell it without reliving it. Because of Stage 1, you are able to stay in the present moment as you review the past. You know healthy ways to cope with any triggers or cravings to use that may appear.
About Stage 3: Reconnection and Integration
In Stage 3, unresolved trauma no longer defines or organizes your life. You recognize the impact of trauma – but you can heal, grow and live with it. You experienced overwhelming difficulty, but now you are growing from that. Your goal is to pursue a happy, healthy, loving life.
Replacing Self-harming Behavior with Self-Care
Therapist and author Babette Rothschild reminds us “the first goal of trauma recovery must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”
It’s about living your life in the present moment, so you’re not living in the body’s unhealed response to traumatic memories. It really is a matter of improving your quality of life.
Even if progress in trauma treatment feels slow, that does not make it poor progress. Maintaining sobriety and recovery while processing difficult feelings and emotions is the key – stabilization is always required to make progress. In fact, slow progress is often good progress. That is because trauma-informed recovery allows us to honor the time it takes to cultivate new skills, strengths and abilities to maintain healthy behaviors and resilient healing.
For everyone, understanding trauma’s role in addiction helps us better support people in recovery. Being trauma-informed helps those in recovery to understand themselves and why they began using, their need for emotional safety, the universal need for healthy coping skills and connections, and their right to feel calm and good about themselves. In treatment, it helps therapists guide a positive journey to greater self-understanding, self-care and powerful coping skills. It is the most powerful approach I know to grow from addiction into a fulfilling, self-directed life that is not trauma driven.
When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I had a neighbor lady who sold Avon & also worked at the post office. I used to babysit her kids once in a while.
One day on my usual route after school, I went to the post office to pick up the mail from Box 169. As soon as I pulled the heavy door open, I could feel a chill in the air. I opened my mailbox & found the familiar yellow card that meant there was a bigger package behind the counter. As I put the yellow card on the counter the lady said to me, “Samantha! I need to talk to you”. I could feel the icy-ness dripping from her words in an accusatory tone. As I swallowed the scared lump rising into my throat; I said, timidly, “Okayyy”.
She then proceeded to tell me that she had a large bag of Avon makeup in her living room closet that was now gone and there had only been 3 people in her house that week and I was one of them.
I felt the blood drain from my body and my knees grew weak. I felt a dark tight tunnel closing in around me. I stood there completely aghast & speechless.
What I now know, is that I was experiencing the flight or fight syndrome, as I talked about in my previous post The Addicts Plea.
So here I am, an 11-year-old girl, alone with a significant adult in the community who had a certain power (to gossip) trying to defend myself with zero communication skills. And even less conflict resolution skills (I still lack).
So what did I do? I chose the only thing I knew – escape!
I ran! I ran the two blocks home in utter terror.
I got home, ran up to my room and fell into my bed in tears. I was caught completely off guard & thoroughly embarrassed that I was thought of as a thief and of course the whole town would know.
In her eyes of course, my fleeing meant guilt. I think I kind of remember a phone call after that but I don’t remember anyone ever talking to me about it. If there ever was a phone call, I’m sure my mother told her right where she could go & how to get there.
All I know Is that, of course, I never babysat again and I avoided the post office when she was in there.
This event was so traumatic to me that I found myself questioning if maybe I had taken it! Surely an adult as powerful as her wouldn’t accuse me if she didn’t have good reason. My un-experienced brain just couldn’t process that without some guidance, which I didn’t get. But what my brain DID process was:
People can & will turn on you- no matter what (trust issues)
I must be over vigilant in proving that I’m doing nothing wrong (paranoia/ over compensate)
When someone does turn on you, there’s no going back. Sorry isn’t good enough because you will never be believed (avoidance/shame / unforgivable)
Not to trust myself
Call this unresolved issues, and baggage -40 year old white Avon baggage! It wouldn’t be the last time I flee-ed an uncomfortable situation. As a result, I have tread lightly with people and relationships. Of course every negative experience adds to this internal map we all have and the stories we tell ourselves about that map.
With me, the overwhelming fear of not knowing what I’ve done wrong mixed with the confusion of wondering if maybe I am a bad person and I just don’t realize it! Otherwise, why would this nice (or powerful or beautiful- insert any word you want) person be accusing ME of it?
The lasting residual of events such as this, with most relationships; is to gain control BEFORE they turn on me- lash out- even subconsciously- before they have a chance to. Going cold is another defense mechanism.
People wouldn’t really call my experience a trauma in the context of traumas, but it is to me.
So if I meet a woman in a position of power; and I am standoffish, or I feel unequal to her- so why even try- this may be a reason. And I absolutely despise getting in trouble. Even with strangers. Because I know my intent was never to do what they are accusing me of.
We just don’t know why people choose the things they do.
We don’t know why people act insecure or boastful or scared. I’m starting to see that what we see as poor choices or weird is maybe what kept them alive in the moment! Maybe it was self preservation!
In the case of choosing substances, of course, they never, ever anticipated the consequences to be so bad. But the choice at the time was what helped them through whatever they were dealing with.
My fav Instagram recovery & homeless advocate explains it wonderfully.
If you’ve known me for a while now, you’ll have heard me talk about how my drug use played a huge part in saving me from dying by suicide as a teen and a young woman. In a perfect world I would’ve had different tools, different support systems, and hell… I would’ve had a different life entirely. But we don’t live in a perfect world and so all responses, even imperfect ones are valid. Sometimes self destruction and self preservation can look almost identical from the outside. Chaotic drug use can also serve as the only inner calm that a person who’s consumed with trauma or existing in traumatic circumstances may be able to access at the time. Don’t assume that you know what internal battles a person is fighting. Sometimes what you see as “the problem” is actually “the solution” for that moment. Sometimes what you view as disordered is actually the very behavior that is helping them maintain order as they navigate pain that you know nothing about.
I have come to believe that is why my son stays stuck. Avoidance is his trauma response. The trauma of losing his dream business, his family, his livelihood- everything that humans hold dear-has created an avoidance response. In order to protect himself, he has cut himself off from caring.
Once in a while it will peak out, like a child grounded to his room for throwing a fit; to see if its safe to come out. Is everyone still mad at me? If it doesn’t feel safe, back in he goes, like a turtle hiding under his shell. My sons shell is drugs. He’s isolated himself to that world and the people who do love him are stuck in their own trauma & pain of the situation.
This is why family recovery is so important. To place all the work on the person with the damaged brain & zero resources or coping skills seems ridiculous. But that’s what most families do. “Don’t contact me until your sober”, is the mantra.
My son is very ill. Yes, recovery has to be his choice, no one can make it for him. But the environment to recover in, can’t be overlooked either. Jail really isn’t ideal, & on the street in the chaos of trying to fill basic needs doesn’t seem to work either. I pray for all suffering that we can find our own safe place in which to heal.
Time to make the best of my ‘new’ title and find the hidden rainbow- right?
I was at work and had just ran to the cafeteria to grab lunch. I had the privilege of being able to eat alone in my office at this job. However, in my haste to get through lunch while doing some work on the computer, my plate had tipped, sending white rice all over the floor.
I fervently scanned the scattered pieces to find any glimpse of color. There didn’t seem to be ANY rainbows.
I stared at it.
How ironic. I had just told the housekeepers to stop straightening my desk in my office because they never actually cleaned it, they just shuffled all my papers together so I couldn’t find anything.
So now I had to sheepishly go ask them to please vacuum up my mess. As I contemplated if I could possibly pick up every little piece of rice myself, I thought of going in search of a vacuum.
It’s such a simple problem right?
No one will be the wiser!
Then no-one needs to cry over spilled milk. Or Rice.
But these days I seem to cry over everything.
My son was in full active addiction after a couple years of tragic downslide from having it all. Business, new house, family, money. All gone, of course. He now faced many charges of possession to feed his addiction, a few being felonies. His disease was telling him there was no way out, despite many options for recovery.
Basically just getting help would solve half his problems.
But as in true addiction- He couldn’t see a way out except to keep trying to work a few little jobs to save for a lawyer.
Which never happens. Keep in mind that’s been his story from the beginning of time. He just needs a little bit more money and everything will be alright.
So how, staring down at that rice imbedded into the doctor’s office- type old carpet; I became an addict. I became an overwhelmed hijacked brain.
I saw every one of those teeny tiny rice pellets as a HUGE problem. There was my failed business. That one is my ex-wife. There’s my kids I haven’t saw or supported in months/ years. There’s my IRS debt over there. Each one of my felonies stared back at me with such white rice starkness, I could hardly keep my gaze.
Trauma specialists say that when a traumatic event hits us at whatever age, it gets stored in the cells of our nervous system and time becomes frozen at the age we are. We shut down emotionally, in a sense, to stay at that place for self preservation. We refuse to listen to solutions or to people who remind us of that place that hurt us. There is virtually no way for the brain to move out of that place until it ғᴇᴇʟs sᴀғᴇ enough to.
That’s why jail, shame, threats, people telling them how ineffective they are or what a mess of their life they’ve made- DOESN’T work in FIXING it.
Furthermore, when people lose their pride, their sense of purpose, their identity (if their identity was wrapped up in their job or their relationship) they feel like they need justice from that first and foremost. Before a resolution.
So basically, everything is just too overwhelming for their frozen-in-time brain.
That rice was too overwhelming to clean up.
I snapped out of it and my healthy brain scooted each piece of rice together until I got a pile to throw away. Again and again until all the rice was gone.
My son, however, in his very hijacked brain keeps staring ( or avoiding) his pile of rice. He wants to run. He wants to hide. He says, Mom there’s no use, they (the cops) aren’t going to stop until I’m put away for good.
My tears flow on days like this.
My strong smart entrepreneur son is going to jail for satisfying his cravings like a smoker buying his ciggerettes, like me buying my chocolate chip cookies. He has a disease that sent him down this dark path of destruction and chaos and there’s not a damn broom or vacuum thing I can do about it.
(I’m sure he made a hellofalot more money than Maslow by adding an EXTRA need! But that’s neither here nor there) -ɪɴᴛᴇʀᴇsᴛɪɴɢʟʏ, ᴡʜᴇɴ ɪ ғᴏᴜɴᴅ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴠɪᴅᴇᴏ- ᴛᴏɴʏ ᴡᴀs ᴛʜᴇ ʙᴇɢɪɴɴɪɴɢ ᴀᴅ..
This variety /boredom/ thing fascinates me because with any excessive behavior that STARTS with these “Trauma Blocking” behaviors they soon become so out of control that everyone involved is just wishing & begging to go back to that “boring” life.
Watch any movie or documentary on cheating or murdering a lover or spouse and you’ll see that their lies and their sins seemed to start from a place of boredom or opportunity.
So how to avoid starting these “blocking” behaviors that just lead to trouble?
I outlined a few ways in this blog on Checkpoints -by basically keeping ourselves accountable- to stay ” safe” if you will.
The other thing this list brought to mind was what constitutes a “trauma”? Some people insist they had a great childhood without too many upheavals yet they have poor insight into why they have such a horrible and quick temper as an adult.
I think of someone, somewhere telling the inner child of this person that their feelings aren’t valid so they learn that somehow rage or anger or impatience will help them feel validated. Somehow.
I guess because it makes people stand at attention or react which makes the angry one feel in control, respected even. Those of us who have lived with such a person know that’s not the case though. Respect flies out the window when one acts like a jerk..lol.
I’m not a therapist, but I am a nurse👩⚕️ and one thing we do as nurses is validate the patient. If they’re mad at the doctor, we are the peace-makers. (I know you really wanted to talk to him but Monday mornings he has alot of rounds to go to- he will be here soon. Meanwhile- what can I do for you?)
As mother’s, we know all about manipulative validation. “I know you’re tired, but just pick up all your toys, eat dinner, do homework, have a bath THEN you can sleep!”
I know, all these things need to be done, but how many times do we SHOW kids that their feelings aren’t valid? Or correct for the situation by trying to get them to think the way we do?
“Honey I know yourt mad at your brother for stealing your toys but how would you like it if he hit you?
This says,: “your anger is misplaced, you have to THiNk about OTHERs BEFORE you get all crazy.”
I guess depending on what era you raised your kids and what parenting model you followed, this may or may not be correct.
In hindsight, and in conclusion; the things that we do on a daily or weekly basis to comfort ourselves are very real and very needed to stay emotionally healthy.
It’s the oldest best advice I heard growing up, MODERATION IN ALL THiNGS that may be the key to keeping these behaviors in check, whether we think we are covering up some hidden “trauma” or not.
By creating the time and space to look at ourselves and the affect we may be having on others, we might be able to ward off behaviors that leach into addictive ones that will eventually harm us and the people closest to us.